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A 2013 Batchelder Honor Book
Do you wonder who this boy is? This boy who is telling you this story? This boy is my brother. And me, I'm his sister. I'm two years older. He was born in 1988 and I was born in 1986. When he was still a baby the war started, near the end of 1989. The first wartime. That makes him eight years old at the beginning of this story, and I'm ten. You can call me Nopi, that's my nickname. We all have crazy nicknames here in Liberia. My brother's is Lucky. He has a gap between his two front teeth, so whenever he smiles, it makes you want to smile, too.
His favorite stories are the ones about how good it was in the old days. Or how he has heard it was. I've told my brother over and over what it was like before the war. I mean, how should I know, since those days were mostly before I was even born? But I listened to our grandma when he was too young to remember.
Listen, and let's see if you can picture this. I've heard about your side of the world, you know. Where it gets cold, and cows don't know how to swim, and there's so much food you don't even want to get fat. I wonder if there's a place for my story in your world. People say a lot of things about Africa. Maybe you could shut out those voices now, and just listen with your heart.
If I start talking about the sun and trees pressed down by the weight of the sky and yellow grass and red dust and crickets at night and laughter and the roar of waves at the beach, can you hear Africa? Can you taste my Liberia in the salt-scented air? Can you feel the dust between your teeth? Can you hear the laughter of the children? Hey, we're just like you, you know. Well, okay, maybe a little different color, and a whole lot warmer, but you want to bet we're not afraid of the same things?
Me, this is what I remember. OK, so this is what happens. These kids are sitting in school. It's a school with walls made of sticks with mud smeared onto them, and mud bricks. The benches are rough tree trunks sawed lengthwise in half, and thin poles hold up the roof. Open windows with no glass because it's always warm, remember? We're packed into the largest room. We're having a school meeting and we're all a little scared since we heard gunshots all night. The school principal is talking to us about schedules, when suddenly, these soldiers come storming into the place in the middle of the school where we're all sitting and standing against the walls.
The girls start to scream, then stop when the soldiers point their guns at us. Man, I can tell you it was not a fine sight. I nearly wet myself I was so scared. You're laughing, but I was only eight years old.
I mean, I was just a little boy then, and all proud of myself for learning the alphabet. What did I know? The principal, Mr. Nyanforth, he walks up to the tallest soldier and he starts talking. I stand up to see better and feel my sister's hand slip over mine. She's found me in the crowd and left her friends. I look at her face and see it turn ashen, then I look back at the principal. All us kids, we jump, because the soldier takes the butt of his gun and rams it up the chin of Mr. Nyanforth and his head goes all funny and he falls down.
Then three of the teachers, all women, walk up to him. There's Mrs. Bieh. She's my teacher and even though she's really big, she has a soft voice when she reads us stories. Her hands are on her hips, which is a bad sign. Man, this soldier is going to get it for sure.
Well, what happens next, you don't want to know. I don't even know. It has something to do with a lot of hitting and more yelling. Us kids, we ran for the door. I looked real quick over my shoulder and saw all three of the teachers being pushed up against the wall and hit over and over again. All I knew is I still had my sister's hand in mine.
We ran as hard as we could, but those soldiers, they had come into our school for a reason. Not just to hurt our teachers or steal. No man, they were after us. We ran and hid in the forest, behind stacks of wood, burrowed under the brush, but when the soldiers came after us, they found us all. My sister and I hid in empty metal barrels used for storing water. I can still remember the smell of rust and how loud my breathing was inside and what it felt like to have my heart jump out of my mouth when I looked up and saw one of the soldiers looking down at me with his bloodshot eyes and stinking breath.
They grabbed us and tied us up so our hands were all connected with rope. My sister walked in front of me. It was not so nice. By now I had wet myself. So I'm wet and smelling, and we're walking in the dust. I guess you could say this was the beginning of my walking career. Walking, walking, walking.
The rebels knew where the kids were when we had a school meeting and waited, knowing they could come and take us then. I couldn't say that to my little brother. I couldn't even think. All I knew was I had to hold onto his hand, no matter what. Where were our parents? Who were these men? Why did they bother with small, small children like us? I was only ten!
I learned later that this happens a lot, all over the world. We're called child soldiers. An AK-47 is light enough for kids to carry. And we do stuff grown-ups are too smart and afraid to try. You know what I think? I think it happens in places where they've run out of men to fight because the wars have gone on and on, and especially in countries like ours where there are diamonds or oil or something else that makes people rich and powerful. When there are no more grown-ups to fight in the wars, then they pick on us kids.
We walked a long time, and ended up in the forest somewhere near a swamp. My little brother, he kept asking where our parents were. We had heard rumors of the war getting closer. Who was fighting who? And why us?
I don't really want to talk about what happened next. I don't know if it was days or weeks, but these rebels didn't give us much to eat and hardly anything to drink, so we really depended on them for everything. I do remember that first night after the soldiers took us, my brother and I sat curled up beneath a cottonwood tree, its big roots and all the branches around us like big arms. And in the dark, while crickets screeched and big splashes sounded in the swamp, I told him his favorite stories, about how things were when we were very small, how things were when we jumped rope and danced and had more rice to eat than we knew what to do with. That's when I told him the stories our grandma used to tell us, of what it was like before the first wartime.
My sister tells me our home had electricity. We lived in the city of Monrovia and at night if you knew someone with an office in a tall building, you could go up there — she's done it with one of our uncles — climbed one of the very tall buildings in an elevator, and you could look down like you were God himself and see all the buildings sparkling in the night. Grounded stars, she called them. Me, I've never seen anything like this. She says we used to have running water, too. And a bathroom with a bathtub. I think maybe she's making some of it up, or she's remembering something Grandma told her, but it is a fact that people in Monrovia used to call it Little America, and the roads were paved, not potholed from artillery attacks.
You know Red Light? You know why that neighborhood in Monrovia is called Red Light? It's because the stoplight hanging at the intersection there used to actually turn green and yellow and red. Yeah, that was before the wars.
You know what else was before the wars found us? James and me. James was my best friend. When my counselor from the U.N. program for ex-combatants asks me what my earliest memories are, I think of James and I think of my sister. Strange, huh? I can't see my parents from before the war anymore. I know they're out there, those memories, but I can't find them. Maybe they're not lost, just misplaced. Even when I think back to when the soldiers came to our school and dragged us off, I come up with a bunch of stuff I wish for, but nothing solid, nothing except my sister's stories.
When I was too tiny to remember, we moved out of the city and to our home in the village. That's where I met James, and he was my best friend — I said that already, right? Man, he and I did everything together. We hung out on the beach and threw rocks at the waves, wondering if we would ever see Mammie Water, a beautiful spirit woman who lives in the water and pulls people in to drown and live with her. Or maybe we would see the very tall white water spirit, called in our language, "Kupabu." He comes out of the water to eat male papaya flowers. People die of fright when they see Kupabu. Then there is also the sea leopard we call Ni-ji, which is part fish and part leopard, and lives in the sea and eats humans. Well, even though we told plenty of stories about them, we never saw any water spirits. We did see a whale once, does that count? We spent whole days doing ... yeah, whatever it is small boys do. We helped collect firewood, that's what my sister says. We danced and bugged our sisters and helped our mothers when we had to. I think we did, anyway. Maybe the memories really are lost. Do I even want to go looking for them now? Man, no.
That same day in school Mrs. Bieh had wanted to know what our dreams were. I can remember that one. I had a dream to be a soccer player and make loads of money and listen to the crowds cheering me on as I travel the world.
But you know something? It wasn't a dream of the heart. My dream now is school and more school. It's all I want. And I know some of you all hate your teachers, and they're ugly and they stink and their nose hairs grow way too long, but man, this really is all I want. That and to be back with James playing soccer somewhere nice, or climbing a coconut tree so we can throw down a coconut and hack it open, then drink its juice, just the two of us like we used to.
My brother's best friend came from another tribe. It was no problem before the wars found us. We all were friends and they played soccer together. I even have an aunt who married a man from a different tribe and it was no big deal. But later on, these things mattered. And James, he came from a tribe in a part of the country where there was fighting early on, which is why his parents had moved to our village.
We have two homes — the one in the village, and our grandparents' home in Monrovia city. Years later, James' uncle took him away from our home in the city, then took James out of Monrovia because their shop kept getting broken into. His uncle took him back to that part of the country where they first came from, before he moved to our village and met me and Lucky. I'll never forget that day five years later, after the war, when both James and Lucky had become men and Lucky saw James for the last time. Lucky stood on the road and watched him go, then squatted down and sat in the dust, drawing with some stick the rest of the day. Ma sent me out to go get him in the evening. It was time for rice, and he never missed his rice. A Liberian hasn't eaten that day unless there's been rice on his plate. That's what our grandma used to tell us. Anyway, we never heard Lucky say another word about James after that. But that was after. Long after all of this. In the beginning, James was with us.
What do you want to know? You're probably still hanging back there with the soldiers, wondering what happened after that first night, am I right? Well, you think this is going to be a miserable story, I bet. You think, Oh no, more bad stuff from Africa. Well, we have a surprise for you, me and my brother. So hold on for the ride.
I'll take you back to that day — no, even better, I'll take you back to that night. It took a long time, that night, and all I could think of was my little brother and how scared he was. That's not true — I also kept thinking about our parents. You see, the soldiers had been coming closer and closer to our village. You mixed up yet? Why weren't we in the city? Well, we used to live there, and I really can remember the lights in the city. But then the war started, and we moved to the country like a lot of other people. We kept thinking the war would be over soon and we could move back home. The soldiers coming to our school that day when I was ten, that was something no one thought would ever happen. Well, no one thought we'd get stuck in the middle of fourteen total years of war either.
Of all my memories, that first night away from home, away from school, away from our parents, that one won't go away no matter how often I tell it to get lost.
They untied us and took the girls away somewhere else. I sat with the other little boys and it was real hard not to cry. When the sun finally came up I found myself waking because someone's foot kept tapping my shoulder. It was a big boy from the older classes. He was kicking me under that tree while he slept, just like a dog sometimes does. The soldiers came and lined us all up and told us that we would become soldiers now. If we listened real good, we would be rewarded with food and water. If we learned real fast, we could get our own guns and make sure no one ever hurt us again.
"Listen up!" The sergeant bellowed like a big bull. He even shook his head back and forth and shuffled his right foot like it was a hoof and he was getting ready to charge at us. This was Sergeant Saint. "You say 'Yes sir' and 'No sir' to everything. You follow orders and you'll get more than just food and water, you'll get money and loot. But first you have to earn your way and carry these bags of rice and millet, understand?"
The big boy who woke me that morning with his foot stepped out of line and said, "You can't just kidnap us like that and expect us to work for you ..." But no sooner were the words out of his mouth than Sergeant Saint shot him dead, right there in front of us. I had never seen anyone shot dead like that before. And it rips something right out of your heart to see the life leave a body.
Then I heard others making noise, screaming and crying all around me. It took me a few minutes to realize some of the noise was being made by me. Sergeant Saint walked right up to me and raised his hand. I saw it block out the sun and I saw the diamond ring on his smallest finger catch the light. It shone like fire as it came down fast.
The blow drove me to my knees. For some strange reason I looked up and just couldn't stop watching Sergeant Saint's face twist even uglier. I smelled the wood smoke from the cooking fires, heard my classmates howling, felt tears drop onto my neck, and tasted salt and dust on dry lips.
"No! Lucky, get down! No!" I looked to the right and saw Nopi running like a wild girl. I had found my sister. She looked different. I couldn't believe how fast she ran. There I was, kneeling in the dust, barely able to turn my head, and there she was racing like lightning across the sky. She tackled Sergeant Saint — well, not really, I mean she threw herself at him.
Boom! She slammed right into him. And he started to laugh. It was this awful sound like walking in mud, a sucking sound that pulled me in and made me scared. The slow-motion feeling stopped and I held my breath. My chest felt like it would burst. I gasped. Now it was my turn to scream, "No!"
The sergeant leaned over and picked Nopi up by her hair. Even then she fought, kicking in the air at him. His laugh grew in volume until it shook us all like thunder. I found a hand slip into mine and pull me to my feet. I looked at the owner of the hand. It was James. He squeezed my hand.
The next instant I saw that diamond ring catch the light again, and this time it landed on the side of Nopi's face. Sergeant Saint flung Nopi down onto the ground and her head landed so the other side of her face hit a rock. Then he kicked her in the ear with his boot and walked away from us.
James let me go and I ran to her. Nopi's school uniform skirt had blood stains on it, but now blood from her ear bubbled out and ran onto her white collar. I was thinking about how the life had just crept out of the big boy's body. Would the same thing happen to Nopi? I waited, then touched her face. Nopi's face is heart-shaped, and she likes to wear colorful scarves woven through her hair. Her favorite is bright orange, and she wore that one at school the day before, but it had gone in the night. Her eyes are big and dark and go right through you when she's angry. I couldn't see her eyes now. She just lay there, not moving. I waited some more. I heard nothing but my heart beating loud as the world stopped turning. I waited.
Excerpted from SON of a GUN by Anne de Graaf Copyright © 2006 by Anne de Graaf. Excerpted by permission of Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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